2015 Archives

How have football players become so big and fast? Blame a former pole-vaulter


The following is from the July 1, 2015, edition of ESPN.com. Applied physiology and biomechanics professor Peter Weyand provided expertise for this story.

July 7, 2015

Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer

Nebraska's Boyd Epley can still remember the weight-room phone call during a warm August afternoon in 1969. He didn't know the brief talk would forever alter the college football landscape.

For months Epley, a no-name pole-vaulter from a no-name Arizona junior college, had trained -- almost inadvertently -- the Huskers' injured football players. Epley lifted weights to strengthen his injured back -- using techniques he picked up from a body-building friend in high school -- and the Huskers' football players mimicked him.

Tom Osborne, then a first-year offensive coordinator at Nebraska, noticed that those injured players returned to the gridiron even better than before, so he wondered what kind of impact strength training would have on healthy players. Why couldn't Epley work his magic on the entire Huskers team? Why not call down to the weight room and hire him as the nation's first full-time strength and conditioning coach?

"If you're looking for the most impactful change, in terms of progression, Nebraska's coaches coming onto the scene like that -- that was probably the single most important event," said Dr. Peter Weyand, an SMU professor of applied physiology and biomechanics, and one of the nation's foremost experts on human performance.

Progression, or evolution? Either way, there's no denying players are bigger, faster and stronger. ...

The impact of this arms' race of athletic facilities isn't just limited to increasing strength, either. Although strength doesn't matter much for top-end speed, according to Weyand, exercises like squats have had a direct impact on football players' change of direction and quickness, along with acceleration -- at least for about the first five yards. After the first few steps, form and mechanics kick in.

"In my high school days and early college days, I can't remember any out-of-season programs that were geared toward change of direction and agility, movement and quickness," said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who was a doctoral student in USC's Physiology department. "Now you have big guys you're training to have some of that athletic ability."

From 1999 to 2002, the median wide receiver time in the 3-cone drill -- which measures agility -- ranged between 6.99 and 7.26 seconds. From 2013 to 2015, that same median lowered to a range of 6.91 to 6.97 seconds.

The next stage, according to Mannie and Weyand, is rooted in sports science. Catapult Technology, a complex player-monitoring system, for example, helps track more than 100 different player metrics and has been utilized by teams such as the Oregon Ducks, New York Giants and Golden State Warriors. (In other words, if you take a play off, there's no longer any hiding it. The technology should also help gauge player progression or lack thereof.)

There's no telling how much further down the rabbit hole that college football can go. But it's already come a long way in a short time -- and some coaches and experts still can't believe it.

"It's not even in the same solar system now," Mannie said. "It's not even in the same galaxy, to be honest with you. It's come a long way to get to this."

Read the complete story at ESPN.com.